SPEAKING as an impartial observer, any bride as beautiful as our daughter, Philippa, deserves to be driven in a five-star car. A friend met that requirement with his 1929-vintage Bentley; but what we appreciated even more - in a different way - was an estate car. The need for one became apparent as we contemplated transporting such essentials as the wedding dress and the tonsil tonic.

The new kid on the block, in this context, is the Ford Mondeo estate, whose prices rise from pounds 12,835 to pounds 18,450. My wheels for the wedding week were the 2.0-litre Ghia version. This range-topping model's specification includes air-conditioning and self-levelling rear suspension. The former helped cool me down after signing cheques that could be mistaken for a Third-World country's gross national product. The latter proved its worth when the Mondeo was loaded to the limit.

Estate cars used to be synonymous with barn-like styling and barge-like performance. Ford's newcomer epitomises the extent to which that has changed. It goes well, looks superb and is a practical holdall, although not as good as it might be in terms of luggage space when the back seat is being used by passengers.

The maximum figures for cargo volume and weight should be considered when shopping for an estate. Class-leading claims made for the Mondeo include 58.3 cubic feet of space when the back seat is folded. Every nook and cranny was filled when my wife carried her flower-arranging team's foliage to the church.

The handbook offered not one word of advice about weight limits, but the maximum load figure, which includes the driver, is 565kg. Calculations made before the first of two visits to Tanners of Shrewsbury equated that with 31 cases of wine, which the Mondeo swallowed with ease (as did our guests). It would have taken another six had I not been anxious about exceeding the theoretical limit. I had visions of being marinated in the event of an accident.

The tail squatted to such an extent that a wide-eyed onlooker wondered if the front wheels would leave the ground, but automatic self-levelling suspension put the Mondeo on an even keel.

Although it didn't handle like a grand prix car, the fully laden Ford never gave the impression of struggling to keep pace with other traffic or to maintain an acceptable degree of poise when cornering. Ironically, the suspension's ability to cope with such extreme conditions drew attention to the less satisfactory ride it provided when the load was much lighter.

Different characteristics were revealed during a 400-mile drive to London and back, and a cross-country dash to meet a train at Crewe. There is nothing inspirational about the four-cylinder, 16-valve engine, but it provides enough performance for a keen driver to make good use of the Mondeo's impressive agility.

Front-wheel drive helps to account for the Mondeo being slightly roomier than the Ford Granada estate, which is much bigger overall. I had expected to put the long load floor to good use when the wedding dress was collected from Droopy & Browns' emporium in St Martin's Lane, but it had been packaged neatly enough to fit into a conventional car's boot.

This eliminated one facet of the test, but my daughter's reaction was philosophical: 'There's enough room to use the back as a makeshift hearse if the combination of Llewellin hospitality and the Severnside Jazz Band proves too much for guests who aren't more than 73.5 inches tall,' she said.

Specifications

Ford Mondeo Estate Ghia, pounds 18,450. Four-cylinder, 16-valve, 2.0-litre engine, producing

136bhp at 6,000rpm. Five-speed

manual gearbox. Maximum

speed 119mph,0-60mph in 10.7

seconds. Average fuel consumption 27.1mpg.

Comparisons

Volvo 850 GLT, pounds 18,795.

New, front-wheel-drive contender from the maker long synonymous with big, sensible estates. Offers much more load space than Mondeo with back seat in place, but less at full stretch. Ford's top cargo weight is much higher.

Peugeot 405 STI, pounds 16,980.

The price is attractive, but you pay extra for several features that are standard on the Mondeo Ghia, such as anti-lock brakes and air- conditioning. Maximum load space almost matches Ford's, but Mondeo takes a lot more weight.

Nissan Primera SLX, pounds 14,205.

Powered by a 2.0-litre engine, this version of the under-rated 'Japanese Geordie' is a very strong contender in terms of price, space and overall loadability. Nissan's factory in North-east England has reputation for build quality.

Vauxhall Carlton Diamond, pounds 18,770. Razor-sharp price for a big, good-looking, well-equipped estate. More space than the Ford and nearly as much weight-carrying potential. Main drawback is a 2.0-litre engine whose 115bhp looks modest in this company.

(Photograph omitted)

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